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Space-Age Role Model for Girls : Careers: Judith Cohen, who worked on the Apollo 12 lunar mission, hopes her books inspire female students to pursue challenging fields.

August 04, 1994|CAROL CHASTANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Judith Cohen was growing up in the 1930s and '40s, she excelled in math, and danced well enough to gain an audition with New York's Metropolitan Ballet.

Cohen's mother made no secret of what path she preferred for her daughter.

"(My) mother always told me that I should be using my head, and not my feet," said Cohen.

So Cohen used her head. She studied engineering at Brooklyn College in New York for two years, and then went to work at North American Aviation (now Rockwell) while attending USC.

In the same period in which she got married and had three children, Cohen worked on the country's first satellite and on the guidance system for the Apollo 12 lunar excursion module.

Now 60, Cohen is a part-time author. Two years ago, she wrote "You Can Be a Woman Engineer." In 35 pages written for elementary school students, Cohen tells how she loved looking at the universe through a telescope, and of her realization that she could be an engineer.

Since then, she has co-written a series with other women in fields traditionally dominated by males. The series, colorfully illustrated by husband David Katz, includes the titles "You Can Be a Woman Architect," "You Can Be a Woman Marine Biologist" and other books dealing with Egyptology, paleontology, zoology and oceanography.

The series is intended to address a problem pointed out in study after study: that girls are overlooked and undervalued in most coeducational classes, especially in math and science. Cohen and oceanographer Florence McAlary will read excerpts from their books at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Marina del Rey.

The idea for the series grew out of a monthly column Cohen wrote for Engineer of California magazine while she was working for TRW. In 1990, she wrote a piece about her life as an engineer. Her husband, a part-time teacher in the Los Angeles school district, saw a need for more of that kind of writing.

"My husband would talk to girls at the schools, and ask what they wanted to be when they grew up," said Cohen. "They'd always say, 'I don't know.' So he decided there was a need for something like this."

Katz encouraged his wife to write her story for girls. When they completed the book, their distributor asked them also to do a Spanish version. And he suggested they do a series.

In her first book, which Cohen and her husband published from their home in Culver City, she wrote about the excitement and challenges of nearly 30 years as a pioneering female in aerospace engineering--in about 900 words.

She graduated from USC with a degree in electrical engineering in 1957. Two years later, she went to work for TRW, where she worked on the first communications satellites sent into space. She earned a master's degree in electrical engineering from USC in 1962.

Working on the backup guidance system for the Apollo 12 lunar excursion module, the capsule that landed on the moon, and then watching the historic moon landing was memorable, she said. But her proudest moment came during the next lunar mission.

"The astronauts couldn't land (on the moon) because of a system malfunction. A fuel tank blew up. So they had to turn off the power on the main system to get back to Earth," said Cohen. "I worked on the backup guidance system, and that is what got them back."

Later, she met an astronaut who told her that the guidance system saved the lives of the astronauts aboard Apollo 13. "I always thought that was amazing."

Later, in the 1980s, she worked on the satellite that NASA uses to send data back and forth from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Explaining physics and advanced biology to a 10-year-old, said Cohen, was one of the biggest challenges of the series. "The scientists get frustrated because I want to limit the book to 900 words, and they have thousands of words they want to use," she said.

The books reached a wider market than she expected.

"The marine biologist book has been out two years, and high school girls are the biggest customers," said Cohen. Adults like the books because they make sophisticated scientific concepts easy to comprehend.

The books were initially sold at museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Museum of Contemporary Art bought copies of the architect's book, while the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla sells the oceanographer's book. Teachers in the Los Angeles school district have bought about 1,000 of the books, which sell for $6, and sales have increased by word of mouth. So far, Cohen said, about 18,000 have been sold.

Earlier this week, Caroline Saleh and her 9-year-old daughter, Sarah, drove to the Marina del Rey bookstore from Redlands to buy Cohen's books.

"We had heard about her before, and we had seen the books," said Saleh. She said her daughter is interested in a science career. They bought "You Can Be a Woman Oceanographer."

"I think it's good to encourage the girls to get into those fields. So I came all the way out here just for these books."

Cohen's next project will be a biography for children on the pioneer environmentalist and author Rachel Carson. Cohen then hopes to find a woman astronomer to help her write a book.

Cohen retired from TRW in 1990 and works as a consulting engineer for companies including Litton Data Systems in the San Fernando Valley and Logicom in San Pedro. She's also learning LOTUS to help people set up their own computer systems.

During a recent book reading, Cohen said she handed out paper to the younger children to draw on. While she was reading her book on being a woman engineer, Cohen said, a 6-year-old girl was busily sketching a rocket ship carrying a woman astronaut.

"That was so exciting, that a 6-year-old could see herself in the spaceship," Cohen said. "And it's great that I can take part in helping someone take away this message."

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